While I was working on the first draft of this book in Alexandria we had the Italian scare in Egypt, and the British, caught with a handful of troops—I doubt if these Egyptian garrisons amounted to 8000 men—sent the fleet to Alexandria. The report was that several Italian divisions, massed in Eritrea and on the Lybian frontier, were preparing to cut off Egypt; that the Ethiopian campaign was merely a blind, an excuse to place expeditionary forces strategically for simultaneous invasion of the Soudan from Asmara and Lybia.
There were fantastic stories going the round of the bars and night clubs of Alexandria. One, I heard it at the Femina or Monseigneur, was that a safe had been found in the wreckage of the Italian plane that burned so mysteriously shortly after taking off from the Mis'r airdrome, enroute for Eritrea; and that a safe, discovered in the wreckage by an R.A.F. pilot, contained plans for this invasion. But the fact remains that the British fleet sailed for Alexandria almost immediately.
Some weeks later, on my way to Haiffa, I became acquainted with an Englishman on the train. He was in mufti, a man about fifty, I judged. Speaking of the Italian scare, he said that Britain's proverbial luck had held. Sending the fleet to Egypt had been a bluff, and Mussolini's intelligence service had let him down with a bang, for when the impressive British armada dropped anchor in and off the port of Alexandria, not one of its units had sufficient ammunition to last three days in the event of hostilities. He added that in the meantime this oversight had been rectified.
How correct his version of the story was, maybe hetyping error in original. judged by the fact that several naval brass-hats were on the platform at Haiffa to receive him. They stood at the salute as he stepped off the train. Then I recalled something he had mentioned about an inspection of destroyers. Beyond us, in the port, I saw six of them at anchor.
The chief customs inspector informed me that my fellow traveller was the Admiral.
I was in Syria to check up on the descendants of the Phenician ancestors of my Galway ancestors. I was curious to find out which of us had degenerated the more. Heading north from Sûr and Saida—the Biblical Tyre and Sidon, I found grey eyes and long upper lips and a sense of humor that had a Hibernian flavor to it.
Here is a sample, overheard in a coffee-house in Tripoli—or Aleppo—I forget which:
"....this man became convinced that Allah had singled him out to be a breeder of sheep. Bowing to the Divine Will, he fenced off his land and bought himself an ewe that was great with young. That night, in a dream, he saw hundreds of sheep grazing: the portent was favorable. To celebrate the occasion he invited his neighbors to a banquet. In the morning he went out to look at his ewe, but there was no sign of her. So he called his servant and told him to find out where the fence was down and follow the tracks of the ewe and bring her back. The servant replied:
'Master, last night your guests ate her'."
On the way south from Aleppo to Damascus, I made a couple of detours to see the crusader castles, Massyaf and the more famous Krak des Chevaliers. The crusaders must have had a job hauling some of those twenty-ton blocks of stone up the mountain side when they were building the Krak. I have a suspicion that some of them were pilfered from the ruins of Palmyra, one hundred and fifty kilometers west. It was amusing to read the praises of Allah carved in huge script in the stone blocks over the entrance to this Christian stronghold. The Alaouit tribesmen, whose village lay below the Krak, were blue-eyed fellows with red drooping moustaches and pointed black chechias that had kept the form of the crusaders' helmets. But I suspected them of having more crusader than Phenician blood in then, and made no attempt to claim relationship.
When I reached Homs there were dead bodies of Arabs lying about in the rain. Some strange looking cavalrymen were guarding them and the gates of the town. They were wearing astrakhan head-gear and high black boots of soft leather. They were not unlike waiters in a Russian night club, though more primitive. My driver, an Arab, said they belonged to a Tcherkess regiment of white Russians, and were in French service. He said that, unlike the Arabs, they were uncivilized bastards, and if he had his way he would castrate them all. They had conclusively silenced the protests of a few Arab patriots against French rule just before we arrived. A Tcherkess brigadier stopped us when we tried to drive into the town. He wanted to know where we were going. I said to Baalbek, and he said I would have to go back by way of Tripoli and Beyrouth—a three hundred kilometer detour. I said I would like hell and I had a letter for the officer in command of the Foreign Legion dépôt at Homs. He asked to see it. After reading it over a few times upside down he said it was no good, and if I was going to Baalbek I could go by way of Tripoli and Beyrouth. "Give me that letter, you cluck!" I said in English. I had spotted a sergeant of Légionnaires crossing the street ahead of us with an umbrella. I yelled at him and he came over. He read the letter right side up and said the commandant was at Hama, but I could go ahead, and to pay no attention to the Tcherkess, they were all uncivilized bastards. My driver said he had reason. I said he had too, only the Tcherkess were armed. I said if he would stick with me till we got out of town I would give him one of the bottles of araq I had bought at Hama. He was at my service completely, he said, and got in with us. He started in on the araq at once. After the fourth swig he said 'Sprechen Sie Deutsch' to me. He was disappointed when he heard I could not. He said araq always made him want to talk German.
It was pretty late when we got to Baalbek, having missed the road a few times on account of the araq; and cold enough to freeze them off you. But, late as it was, there was a fellow in the hotel who tried to sell me some objets d'art of great antiquity that had been unearthed in the ruins. My driver said he was a crook and to lay off him. But while the driver was in the men's room the antiquaire got hold of me and showed me a beautiful little figurine in clay. It looked like a tanagra. He was holding it for the High Commissioner, M. le Comte de Martel, he said; but if I would give him twenty francs, he knew where he could find another like it for M. de Martel. We compromised at fifteen francs. In the morning, when the araq fumes had subsided, I examined my objet d'art. The antiquaire had not lied when he said he could find another just like it for the High Commissioner. On looking inside its base I noticed a small inscription: Made in Japan.
Between Rayak and Damascus we passed droves of Arab prisoners on the road, guarded by French Spahis. On the outskirts of Damascus detachments of Druses were riding about, strangely enough, helping the French keep order. In the city itself, the streets were deserted. When we drove up to the Palace Hotel we found Hotchkiss machine guns mounted on either side of the entrance. The crews were Anamite, Moslems being disinclined to fire upon coreligionnaires when their differences are not inter-tribal. Not a shop in that rebuilt thoroughfare, The Street Called Straight, was open. I watched a Senegalese sergeant smashing the locks off the galvanized sliding shutters of one of them with a rifle butt, while his detail covered the crowd with fixed bayonets. Like the rest of the merchants protesting French rule, the owner of the store was sitting on the curb. He was an old man, but had enough pep in him to start pitching the contents of his store out on the street when the Senegalese dragged him into it and told him to carry on.
Before quitting Damascus for Soueida, I went on a little personal pilgrimage to the mosque of Cheikh Muéddhín where the Algerian Emir, Abd-el-Kader—who gave the French invaders of his country such a hot time between the years 1841—'47—is buried. The road was blocked by a peloton of Spahis. When the native officer in command, a white-bearded aggressive old man, told my driver to get to hell I got out of the car with a bouquet of flowers I had brought, and did some talking myself. After I had explained that I wished to place them on the tomb of the Algerian hero, the officer said at once that he would escort me there personally. He was curious to know how a roumi came to be honoring Abd-el-Kader. I explained that I was Irlandais, and the Irish, like Abd-el-Kader, were all for independence. But he did not know what an Irelandaistyping error in original. was. He kept calling me a Hollandais. I let it go. He is probably still wondering why a Dutchman was bringing flowers to Ab-el-Kader's tomb.